By WILL WEISSERT
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Gov. Rick Perry and hundreds of often teary-eyed family members on Thursday honored police officers, firefighters and first responders killed or severely hurt in the line of duty with Star of Texas awards.
Many of the honorees were volunteer firefighters who rushed to West to fight the April 17 fertilizer plant fire that eventually triggered a massive explosion, killing 15 people in all.
"Texas first-responders know there is no such thing as routine, not in their jobs," Perry said. "Anyone in this room knows how this call, this noble service, carries with it a great element of danger."
The governor distributed the awards during a somber morning ceremony at a megachurch in north Austin.
Receiving special awards were Kaufman County District Attorney Michael McLelland and his wife Cynthia, who were gunned down in their home in March. Their deaths came two months after the assassination of assistant DA Mark Hasse, who was among 17 slain peace officers who received awards.
As the special recognition was presented to the McLellands' relatives, projection screens overhead showed a photo of Michael McLelland smiling as his wife draped her arms around him and beamed. Other honorees were shown in their uniforms or, if they were volunteers, usually smiling warmly in street clothes.
Also honored was U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Jaime Zapata, who was killed in Mexico in 2011, allegedly by members of the Zetas drug cartel.
The Star of Texas Award was created to honor police and first-responders who exhibited extraordinary service to the state. Some 363 awards have been distributed since it was first given out in 2004.
"The Texans we honor here today are the best our state has to offer," said Perry, who wore the thick spectacles that have recently become common during his public appearances. "People for whom honor and courage and dedication are a way of life. They're the people who exemplify the meaning of `love thy neighbor."'
Five fallen members of the West Volunteer Fire Department and many volunteers at nearby fire departments were honored, as was Kenneth Harris, a 52-year-old Dallas firefighter who was off-duty when the West fire broke out but nonetheless scrambled to help at the scene.
This year, the Legislature created Citizens' Star of Texas Awards for ordinary Texans hurt or killed while assisting first responders. Receiving those were two men who helped the West Volunteer Fire Department, Jimmy Matus, a 52-year-old sales manager for a company that built fire trucks; and William "Buck" Uptmor, 45, who owned a fence-building business.
West Mayor Tommy Muska accepted the award on behalf of Matus' family.
Four Houston firefighters killed in a massive May 31 motel and restaurant blaze were also given Star of Texas awards, as well as four firefighters who were severely injured in that fire. Among those killed was Anne Sullivan who Perry noted: "was working just her second fire."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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